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Stopping the outcry before it starts

Brand-sensitive retailers act fast to defuse ethical issues before they explode into costly boycotts

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Shoppers on the hunt for products made and shipped in an ethical manner are getting a boost from some unlikely sources: the 800-pound gorilla retailers who help keep their suppliers in business.

McDonald's Europe, for instance, last month helped persuade agribusiness giants to stop buying soybeans from newly deforested tracts in protected regions of the Amazon. Also last month, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott urged hundreds of suppliers at a Bentonville, Ark. summit to combat global warming by using less energy and incorporating alternative sources. And for the past two years, Tiffany & Co. has been calling on gold miners to end waste dumping in pristine lakes and adhere to international labor standards.

For the past decade, some ethically minded consumers have shunned retailers who buy goods from shady overseas suppliers. But when brand-sensitive retailers bow to behind-the-scenes pressure, activists say, customers need to play a new role. They need to speak up, with notes applauding positive steps taken, as well as spend in ways that encourage more of the same behaviors.

"Get on their website, send them an e-mail, and say 'thank you' " for demanding higher standards from suppliers, says Michael Marx, director of Business Ethics Network, a coalition of groups that rally public pressure to move corporate policies. "The internal champions of that change need those kinds of e-mails to reinforce their stand against the more 'bottom-line' champions who don't want to make those changes."

Ethical sensibilities, clearly articulated among the buying public, seem to be driving this latest corporate cleanup. Just the prospect of a backlash at the cash register can be enough to trigger new policies, as the Amazon soy case suggests.

In April, days after Greenpeace International released a report detailing the illegal destruction of rain forest in order to grow soybeans, McDonald's investigated whether its suppliers were involved. Within weeks, a coalition of European food sellers led by McDonald's had united to demand new purchasing policies from the three implicated firms: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge. On July 24, the three announced a two-year moratorium on buying soy from newly deforested areas. Meanwhile farmers, buyers, activists, and regulators plan to come up with a system to verify ethical soy-growing practices.


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